The Extraordinary League of Accidental Revolutionaries
You might think the Egyptian revolution is dead, but the Tahrir faithful are still chipping away at the Old Guard -- one YouTube video at a time.
The world couldn’t possibly make sense of a leaderless revolution. So in the early days of Egypt’s iconic 18-day uprising, an unflagging press corps tried on Mohamed ElBaradei, a bald and bespectacled Nobel laureate. When ElBaradei flopped, they turned to 30-year old Google executive Wael Ghonim, who as Wendell Steavenson wrote, would become the face, but never the leader of the revolution. Before the media gave up on the idea of leadership altogether, Time published one of the most recognizable images of the Egyptian uprising — its Feb. 28, 2011, cover featuring seven Egyptian activists as the “generation changing the world.”
Since then, Egypt’s revolutionaries have had a rough ride. The generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took over after Mubarak’s ouster, proved to be little better than their old boss, and the recent presidential election crowned the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy, a colorless Islamist politician whom few of the original protesters can get excited about. Indeed, there is an overwhelming sense — in Egypt and abroad — that the young protesters who powered the revolution have been overtaken by events. As the Wall Street Journal put it in June, Egypt’s transition to democracy “has stalled in a quagmire of divide-and-conquer politics, leaving the country’s revolutionaries splintered and disillusioned.”
But have Egypt’s revolutionaries really faded into irrelevance? The, reality is more complicated — a fact that is brought home by the paradoxical story of the photograph itself. Taken in the headquarters of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour’s El-Ghad party, the image was never supposed to be about its subjects — indeed, they go unnamed on the cover — but it has since been elevated to a veritable “who’s who” of the Egyptian revolution.
This explains why a number of prominent activists — including Wael Ghonim and Esraa Abdel Fattah, perhaps the two most recognizable faces from the revolution — did not make it onto the cover. Despite its accidental composition, however, the photograph had a profound effect. It created a vaunted class of revolutionary leaders out of a ragtag collection of grass-roots activists — one that was destined to fall short of the public’s expectations.
From the beginning, the bulk of these activists fought for incremental change in a single issue-area. That is, they were the very stuff of democracy — but they were uniquely ill-equipped to affect sweeping revolutionary change. Some would say that this is a virtue: Between Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Libyan autocrat Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, the Middle East hasn’t had a lot of success with top-down revolutionary movements. But the activists’ failure to excise six decades of institutional rot in 18 months has meant that many would relegate them to a footnote on a back page of history. The cheerleaders of democracy, it seems, have forgotten how slow and dysfunctional of a process it is.
For most of the people on that cover, the January 25 uprising has become just that — an uprising. The revolution, in their opinion, is very much a work in progress. As Noor Ayman Nour, sporting glasses and an unruly mop of hair on the Time photo, put it, “My main regret is that it was called a revolution…We are yet to have a revolution and I think most of the people on that cover would agree.”
But what Noor and the other activists FP caught up with for this article — some from the Time cover, and others that might have been featured in their place — are doing is pretty revolutionary in its own right. Today in Egypt, they are still fighting to empower women, to end military trials, to win a livable minimum wage, to improve public education, to create jobs, and to make Egypt’s press free. It might not have gotten them on the cover of Time if they hadn’t also toppled Mubarak, but it happens to be exactly what Egypt needs if it is going to make the improbably leap towards democracy. The following is a look at what some of Egypt’s most well-known revolutionaries are doing today.
A blogger, social activist, and Twitter fanatic, Gigi first made a name for herself in Tahrir Square as one of the revolution’s most prominent citizen journalists. She won over the world several weeks later when she appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and attributed her remarkable role in the revolution to a class she’d taken in college. “I took a class at the American University in Cairo called ‘Social Mobilization Under Authoritarian Regimes,'” she quipped to a visibly nonplussed Stewart. “I went to one protest [after that] and the rest was history.”
It’s been less glamour and more grunt work since then, as Ibrahim has set about keeping the original goals of the revolution alive. To that end, she’s joined Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists, an organization that campaigns for improved public education, water provision, electricity, and a living wage. “Social justice and the minimum wage were always at the heart of the movement,” she told Foreign Policy. In recent weeks, Ibrahim helped coordinate and publicize strikes in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla al-Kubra, a hotbed of labor activism in the lead-up to the 2011 uprising, as part of the Socialists’ campaign for a minimum wage of LE 1,500 (roughly U.S. $250) per month. The organization also provides legal services to labor activists.
The revolution is far from over, according to Ibrahim, who continues to protest against military rule. “The SCAF is the main enemy; [it is] the leader of the counterrevolution, but Morsy comes in second,” she said. “The Brotherhood is no better than the Republican Party or any other right-wing party…The best we can do, though, is to pressure Morsy to achieve the goals that he promised” during the campaign. According to Ibrahim, this includes instituting a living wage, freeing all of the demonstrators arrested during the revolution, and putting an end to military trials for civilians.
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NOOR AYMAN NOUR
Nour was born with a dissident’s voice. His father, Ayman Nour, is a longtime critic of Hosni Mubarak — ultimately running for president against the dictator in 2005, a move that landed him in prison for three years. Partially as a result of his father’s struggles — and partly as a result of his own — Noor grew up with a deep sense of the regime’s injustices. Having attended his first protest at the age of 14, he was already a seasoned activist by the time the he headed to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25, 2011.
Since then, Nour has been a leading voice in the No To Military Trials movement, which campaigns for the release of some 12,000 civilians who have been sentenced by military tribunals in the aftermath of the revolution. According to Human Rights Watch, such trials “do not protect basic due process rights and do not satisfy the requirements of independence and impartiality of courts of law.”
Morsy has pardoned 572 prisoners since taking office in June, but the vast majority of those convicted during SCAF’s tenure remain behind bars. “I was not expecting [Morsy] to have total disregard for the victims of the SCAF,” Noor said in an interview. “Especially given the fact that Morsy himself was a victim of the Mubarak regime” and served time in prison. While the younger Nour remains active on this issue, he said he’s been devoting more time to his real passion: environmental conservation. “Life is now divided between my day, working in a nature conservation NGO, and [my] night working on trials.”
ESRAA ABDEL FATTAH
As one of the co-founders of the April 6 Youth Movement, started in 2008 to support labor rights in the Nile Delta town of El-Mahalla El-Kubra, Esraa Abdel Fattah was already a veteran activist by the time the Egyptian revolution broke out in January 2011. Arrested and detained for more than two weeks over her role in the Mahalla protests, she became known in activist circles as Egypt’s “Facebook girl” — a reputation she maintained working at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, an NGO that leverages social media for democratic purposes.
Following the 18-day uprising, which Abdel Fattah live-Tweeted, she founded an NGO called Free Egyptian Women, which trains women to be political leaders. “[A]ctivists and revolutionaries were not organized and did not have enough time to organize themselves in parties…to compete [for] parliamentary seats,” she told Foreign Policy in an email. As a result, only two members of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which included a broad cross-section of youth activists who participated in the revolution, won seats in last year’s parliamentary election — and neither of them were women.
Free Egyptian Women, which offers workshops and seminars to aspiring female leaders, is working to change that. Most recently, it submitted a number of policy suggestions to the committee charged with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.
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Arabawy.org, a popular blog among Egypt’s activist clique, bears the following caption: “In a dictatorship, independent journalism by default becomes a form of activism, and the spread of information is essentially an act of agitation.” Marwa Nasser, pictured throwing up a peace sign on the Time magazine cover, is the living embodiment of that aphorism. Having quit her “cubicle job” on Jan. 24 and thrown herself headlong into the revolution, Nasser has been treading the thin line between activism and journalism ever since. “I couldn’t go back to my previous life,” she told FP. “I was so excited about the change that was happening in Egypt — that was happening to me.”
A protester, writer, and translator for foreign journalists, Nasser has dedicated these last 18 months to telling the story of the revolution — and to keeping it alive. Not surprisingly, this has landed her in some tight spots. During the recent presidential election she was arrested and held for 10 hours while translating for a foreign correspondent. “I was accused of telling people to vote for Morsy,” she said, “But [the woman I was talking to] had already voted.”
According to Marwa, reporting and translating has become more difficult in recent months as the country has turned inward. A series of television ads accusing foreigners of being spies has only made things worse. “State TV has been spreading rumors and lies about foreigners being a risk,” she said, noting that the ads draw special attention to journalists’ use of cameras. “This makes no sense because this is what tourists do. They take photos.”
As the man behind the Facebook page “We Are All Khaled Said,” dedicated to a young Egyptian who was beaten to death by policemen, Ghonim played a critical role in organizing the initial protests on Jan. 25, 2011. Later, the Google executive was arrested and interrogated for 11 days over his involvement in planning the demonstrations. When he was finally released on Feb. 7, he made an appearance on Egyptian television that many say breathed new life into the revolution just days before Mubarak’s ouster.
Since the 18-day uprising, Ghonim has been a busy man, writing a book (Revolution 2.0), helping set up a youth lobby shop called Masrena (“Our Egypt”), and founding Nabadat, his own NGO, which seeks to leverage technology for educational purposes. “I like to look at Egypt 10 years from now,” he said in an email. “[The] challenges we are facing at the moment are speed bumps that will only slow us down but [won’t] change the direction.”
Nabadat, which Ghonim has largely financed with the proceeds from his book, recently launched its first initiative — a YouTube-based educational outreach program called Tahrir Academy. So far, their 32 instructional videos have been viewed more the 550,000 times.
A little more than 18 months since they toppled a modern-day pharaoh, Egypt’s young revolutionaries are still chipping away at the institutional monuments he left behind. To those who only see progress in epic events, like those vertiginous days in Tahrir, the revolution may look like it’s stalled — its roster of twenty-something instigators relegated to the dustbin of history. But if opportunists from across the political spectrum have stolen some of the revolutionaries’ mojo, they have not been able to halt their progress outright.
There’s an old Egyptian proverb, recounted by the British novelist William Golding in An Egyptian Journal, a log of his travels in that country, that says: “He who rides the sea of the Nile must have sails woven of patience.” It’s a lesson with which Egypt’s revolutionaries seem well acquainted. Their measured, piecemeal approach may not feel like a revolution — but it’s rebuilding Egypt, one YouTube clip at a time.
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